Budgeting for Boat Maintenance: How Hands On Will You Be?

Upkeep chores and materials will cost more or less depending on the type of boat you own, where you keep it and, of course, on your own patience, skills, and bankroll.


This article originally appeared on boats.com. Republished by permission. 


Anyone who thinks about investing in a boat bigger than a kayak should get out a calculator, take a deep breath, and tally up honest estimates of the recurring costs of registration, dockage, hauling and launching, winter storage, insurance, and maintenance. But that last item—maintenance—is a tricky one to figure, because it’s not a fixed amount determined by someone else; it will vary season to season and year to year, and it will depend very much on how willing and able you’ll be to work on your new investment.

Even a relatively simple center-console will have a list of maintenance chores to perform. This Contender carries twin Yamaha 300s, an electronics suite, bottom paint, livewell pumps, and other features that will need regular attention. Paul Cronin photo.
Even a relatively simple center-console will have a list of maintenance chores to perform. This Contender carries twin Yamaha 300s, an electronics suite, bottom paint, livewell pumps, and other features that will need regular attention. Paul Cronin photo.

Maintenance, of course, means not only cleaning things, lubricating things, and replacing parts on things that aren’t broken, but fixing things that are. And any boat owner who’s been in the game for more than a few months will tell you there’s a lot of it. There’s a strong argument that the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in boat ownership is enhanced by a willingness to Embrace the Hacksaw.

But there’s a counter argument that says, “I’m buying this boat to relax on, and I have no intention of spending every weekend busting my transom to keep it the way I want it. I’m planning to pay the pros to do that for me.”

Well, good on ya! But let’s just make sure you know what you’re getting into, more or less, no matter where you stand along the do-it-yourself spectrum.

BOATYARD LABOR RATES


Marine labor rates vary widely around the country and the world, as does the quality of work involved, and it shouldn’t be surprising that you don’t always get what you pay for. You might pay a skilled marine tradesman in the lower Chesapeake or the western Gulf Coast half of what a tradesman or his yard would charge for the same job on Nantucket, Eastern Long Island or San Diego, and you might get a better result to boot. But no matter where you are, you won’t find marine labor cheap. Expect a range of $70 to $140 per hour for skilled work (engine work, topsides painting and varnishing, electrical, refrigeration, etc.), and $40 to $80 or so for unskilled projects (pressure-washing, waxing, scraping, etc.). So where you plan to keep your boat will make a big difference in total dollars spent on maintenance, assuming you’re planning to pay someone else do so a portion of it.

What’s the maintenance budget like for a classic sailboat with lots of wood to paint and varnish, plus spars, rigging, auxiliary engine, and complex systems belowdecks? If you have to ask, you can’t afford it. Doug Logan photo.
What’s the maintenance budget like for a classic sailboat with lots of wood to paint and varnish, plus spars, rigging, auxiliary engine, and complex systems belowdecks? If you have to ask, you can’t afford it. Doug Logan photo.

While boatyard job estimates tend to be low, any good yard manager will make an honest attempt at quoting you a ballpark figure for a job based on Time + Materials (with a shop markup for materials) or, sometimes, with a fixed price per job, depending on the project and the experience of the yard in handling that job. See the project list on a 2015-2016 winter storage contract from a boatyard in Glen Cove, NY and the labor rates at a yard at the other end of Long Island for examples of chores and expenses.

Who’s going to build the frame for your winter cover and install the tarps or shrink-wrap—you or your boatyard? Ed Sherman photo.
Who’s going to build the frame for your winter cover and install the tarps or shrink-wrap—you or your boatyard? Ed Sherman photo.

A yard foreman who’s been in the business for 20 years will (or should) have a good idea of how much you’ll pay to have your topsides cleaned, compounded and waxed. That said, boats are complex objects, and even the pros are not immune to occasional task/time-warps that can turn a two-minute project into an afternoon of high-volume cussing. And that time will have to be paid for. For more on this phenomenon, see Lenny Rudow’s Project: Reality.

BOAT TYPE


It’s obvious that the size of a boat has a bearing on maintenance: The bigger it is, the more expensive. But type matters, too, and so do layers of complexity in terms of systems and surface areas. A 30-foot wooden sailboat with a full keel and auxiliary diesel engine is going to cost more in the long run to maintain than a 30-foot center-console with twin or even triple outboards (although it will probably cost far less initially). The sailboat owner will have spars, rigging, and sails to contend with; an auxiliary engine and running gear; topsides, deck, and bottom that will need regular painting (a full-keel boat takes a lot of bottom paint); plus freshwater, electrical, and sanitation systems to maintain. The expensive center-console, on the other hand, will need to be cleaned and waxed. If it lives in a slip at a dock it will need bottom paint (but less than the sailboat); if it lives on a trailer or on a lift and just splashes around for a few hours at a time, it may not need any bottom paint at all. The outboards will need flushing and periodic maintenance, including oil changes if they’re four-strokes. While routine maintenance on modern outboards can be tackled by a moderately handy boatowner, many owners just trailer their boats to their local dealers or service pros, or pay the pros to make house calls for end-of-season servicing.  If the boat has a plumbed-through head and holding tank instead of a porta-potty, and a plumbed freshwater supply, those things will take it back up the complexity scale.

OK, the boat is hauled. After the pressure-washing, who’s going to follow up with the scraping, bottom-painting, and cleaning up the running gear? Doug Logan photo.
OK, the boat is hauled. After the pressure-washing, who’s going to follow up with the scraping, bottom-painting, and cleaning up the running gear? Doug Logan photo.

 

So, no matter what type of boat you’re shopping for—power or sail; bowrider, express cruiser or center-console; outboard- or inboard-powered; trailer-borne or TraveLift-launched—bear in mind that differences in configuration will make differences in your maintenance budget.

A NOTE ON BUDGETING FOR MATERIALS


There are some maintenance supplies sold at boating stores that can’t be found elsewhere, like bottom paint, good-quality marine epoxy, marine-grade electrical connectors, and engine zincs. On the other hand, boat stores make a ton of money with stratospheric markups on items that can be found in regular hardware or home-goods stores—things like mops and hose, paint brushes, high-quality masking tapes, sandpaper, buckets, spray cleaners, and so on. If you’re a hands-on person just getting into boats, you’ll save yourself thousands of dollars in the long run by knowing what needs to be bought at a boat store and what can be bought elsewhere.

Skilled engine maintenance and repair work will cost from $70 to over $140 per hour depending on your local rates. Melissa Logan photo.
Skilled engine maintenance and repair work will cost from $70 to over $140 per hour depending on your local rates. Melissa Logan photo.

 

YOUR MISSION, SHOULD YOU CHOOSE TO ACCEPT IT


Now we’re down to the last element: you, and where you and other members of your family fit on the DIY scale. Probably the easiest way to get down to the nitty gritty is to present a sample list of maintenance chores that might be offered by a full-service boatyard to their clients. Consider the type of boat you’re interested in, research the labor rates at the boatyards in the area where you’ll keep the boat, picture yourself doing these jobs, then picture trained professionals doing them while you peel fifties off your bankroll.

 

  • Fall: Install winter frame and covering. Spring: Remove winter frame and covering.

 

  • Fall: Remove and/or winterize/maintain batteries. Spring: Re-commission batteries.

 

  • Fall: Winterize freshwater system. Spring: Flush and fill freshwater system.

 

  • Fall: Change engine oil, clean heat exchangers.

 

  • Fall: Winterize engine(s) Spring: Flush and commission engine(s).

 

  • Spring: Wash decks; clean windows and hatches.

 

  • Spring: Polish and protect stainless, chrome, bronze, brass, and other metal fittings on deck.

 

  • Spring: Clean, compound, wax topsides.

 

  • Spring: Prepare and paint bottom.

 

  • Spring: Install zincs; prepare props and running gear.

 

  • Spring: Test, troubleshoot, electrical system; anti-corrosion measures

 

  • Fall: Remove and store sails, running rigging. Spring: Install sails and running rigging.

 

  • Fall: Remove and store canvas, dodgers, bimini tops; Spring: Install canvas.

 

  • Winter: Check bilges, ventilation, boat covers and tie-downs periodically.

 


Of course, those are strictly recurring maintenance chores; they don’t include fix-it jobs, gear replacements, new-equipment installations, or occasional make-overs like topsides painting. (For more on what’s involved in all common DIY paint projects—topsides, deck, and bottom—read How to Paint a Boat).

You’ll need to buy some boat-specific maintenance items at your marine store. Other things like sandpaper, buckets, and brushes will be much cheaper at your local hardware or home-goods store.
You’ll need to buy some boat-specific maintenance items at your marine store. Other things like sandpaper, buckets, and brushes will be much cheaper at your local hardware or home-goods store.

At the point where the idea of peeling off the next fifty is just too painful, take a good look at the boat you’re lusting after and brace for a decision: You’re either going to have to get up off your transom and tackle more maintenance chores that you originally wanted to, or find a boat that will be cheaper to maintain.

Happy budgeting, and happy boating.

 

Used Boats: What’s It Going to Cost to Fix This Thing?

The last boat I bought was sitting on land with nearly a foot of water in the bilge, mold growing on the headliner, and mushrooms popping out of the cushions.

And that was just the inside.

While that might seem as if it was the stupidest purchase anyone could make, I was prepared to supply almost all of my own elbow grease, I knew how to make most of the repairs, and, most importantly, I was armed with a cost-plus-10-percent employee discount at a very well-stocked ship’s chandlery. It also helped that the hull and deck were solid, despite the cosmetic issues.

Big rehab jobs like this are often quoted on a project basis, but sometimes are done by labor hours and materials. You’ll almost always do better by asking for and going with a firm quote for both labor and materials. Photo by Gary Reich.
Big rehab jobs like this are often quoted on a project basis, but sometimes are done by labor hours and materials. You’ll almost always do better by asking for and going with a firm quote for both labor and materials. Photo by Gary Reich.

Buying a boat that needs a little—or a lot—of help is a great way to get a boat that you may not otherwise be able to afford.

But what if you’re not so sure about how to make your own repairs? Or maybe you don’t have a most-excellent wholesale discount at your local marine supply shop. While there’s nothing wrong with buying a boat that needs a lot of tender loving care, you’ll regret not knowing how much the jobs you can’t do yourself will end up costing.

I decided to take a look at some typical repair and service costs, trying to keep the estimates for the under-40-foot crowd, boat-wise. Some of the information comes from first-hand experience, while some of the data came from marine service professionals in the Chesapeake Bay area. Your mileage may vary, and it’s always a good idea to get two or more quotes for big jobs.

Know Your Limits

There’s certainly nothing wrong with doing your own work, but there are certain areas where you can cause more of your own damage than what originally existed. Worse, some systems you work on could potentially create a dangerous situation, resulting in a fire, sinking, or worse.

Before you decide to purchase a fixer-upper, make a laundry list of repairs that you know need to be done. This way you can weigh the costs of doing some of the repairs on your own and hiring out those you’re not equipped to deal with.
Before you decide to purchase a fixer-upper, make a laundry list of repairs that you know need to be done. This way you can weigh the costs of doing some of the repairs on your own and hiring out those you’re not equipped to deal with.


I know when to call in the engine guy, and there are certain electrical jobs, especially those with alternating current (AC), which I know a marine electrical technician is going to do more safely than I would.

If you are going to attempt something on your own, make sure you’ve got all the information at hand to do the job right. There are plenty of books and Internet resources to help. Also consider getting involved in the owner’s organizations for your particular craft or boat brand; members have often done the same work you’re attempting, and can often offer their own tips and tricks.

Specialized labor, such as this shipwright repairing a wooden buyboat, will cost you extra and is something to keep in mind before you sign a check toward that new-to-you boat. Photo by Gary Reich.
Specialized labor, such as this shipwright repairing a wooden buyboat, will cost you extra and is something to keep in mind before you sign a check toward that new-to-you boat. Photo by Gary Reich.

Boatyard and Shop Basics

Boatyards, fiberglass shops, engine repair outfits, and electronics installers generally all bill their work on a parts and labor basis, though larger jobs are frequently done with a quote that covers both materials and labor for the job inclusively.

Some service outfits are mobile and can come to your boat, while others require your vessel to physically be at their shop. And remember, some of that work might involve a haul-out at extra cost. Some mobile services charge a travel fee, while others do not. Your best bet it to get a firm, fixed quote in writing before any work begins, if possible. Now, let’s get an idea of how much this stuff costs.

Mechanical Systems

The installation or repair of plumbing or HVAC systems is often done by the hour, but the cost of parts and components are what drive job costs up. Whether you’re having a new head and holding tank put in, or an old bilge pump fitted, the type of work involved is often less skill-intensive, meaning labor sometimes runs less than other work. Big jobs like a new HVAC system are generally quoted by the job, including labor and materials.

General service rates for plumbing, HVAC, and other general boat work run anywhere from $65 to $115, in our queries.

Complete systems are often quoted with a firm price for materials and labor to get the whole job done.

This is a great area where you can do your homework and perform some do-it-yourself work.

Engines, Transmissions, Etc.

This is an area of boatwork—aside from very general preventive maintenance like oil changes—where most folks tend to leave it to the pros. Part of the reason is because of the specialized tools often required to facilitate these repairs, but also because, well, most of us don’t know an injector from valve stem.

Engine/transmission rebuilds generally run about 50 to 60 percent of the cost of a brand-new one, depending on the type.

Estimating the cost of engine work can be a tricky. Scheduled maintenance costs are usually fixed, but diagnosis and repair costs are tough to nail down.
Estimating the cost of engine work can be a tricky. Scheduled maintenance costs are usually fixed, but diagnosis and repair costs are tough to nail down.

Rebuilt/remanufactured engines run about 70 percent the cost of a new one, except when it comes to outboard engines. Their rebuilds have a generally lower cost delta. Yet most folks generally choose to repower, given the new technology and efficiency in these engines.

Labor rates for engine work vary widely, but figure on somewhere between $95 and $130 an hour, plus materials. Yes, that’s a wide range.

Most shops have a fixed, flat-rate price for regular maintenance like oil changes, winterization, or scheduled service. This makes shopping around for the best price easier.

Fiberglass, Gelcoat, Paint, Varnish

This is probably the most labor-intensive work done on boats, primarily because of the extensive prep involved with making a mess of fiberglass look as if nothing ever happened. Almost all fiberglass, gelcoat, and paint work is quoted by the job.

Hull painting and restoration can be an expensive job to hire out, but often gives results that last for decades. Photo by Gary Reich.
Hull painting and restoration can be an expensive job to hire out, but often gives results that last for decades. Photo by Gary Reich.

Expect to pay anywhere between $150 to $250 per foot (and up) to have a hull painted with any sort of two-part paint, such as Awlgrip, Alexseal, or Imron. You’ll pay approximately the same price to have the decks done, although the per-foot rate can be a bit higher because of the detail work involved.

Bottom painting varies, depending on whether the old bottom paint needs to be stripped or blasted off, and whether haul-out and launch are included, etc. For a haul, prep, bottom paint, and launch job, expect to pay $20 to $40 per foot. Smaller boats on trailers often cost less, as little as $15 per foot in the Chesapeake Bay area.

Different grades/qualities of bottom paint will run pricing up. Ask what type of paint the quote includes and do your research to make sure you’re not getting a couple of cheap coats of crappy paint slapped on.

Varnish/brightwork is usually quoted by the job, since some boats have oodles of teak or mahogany, and some have very little. The condition of the wood counts, too—the worse shape it’s in, the more it will cost to restore.

Electrical/Electronics

This is another area, like engines and transmissions, where getting an expert involved is generally a good idea. That said, there are lots of small 12-volt jobs and less-complicated electronics installations that boat owners can do on their own and save money, such as wiring a bilge pump or installing a GPS unit.

Electrical systems are one place where you can save quite a bit of money by doing the work yourself, as long as you know what you’re doing. You can also utilize resources such as books and online information to help out with any particulars you don’t know. Photo by Gary Reich.
Electrical systems are one place where you can save quite a bit of money by doing the work yourself, as long as you know what you’re doing. You can also utilize resources such as books and online information to help out with any particulars you don’t know. Photo by Gary Reich.

Troubleshooting and repair jobs are generally done by the hour and run between $85 and $125 per hour. These are the types of jobs where you call up and say, “My navigation lights keep tripping the breaker and I can’t figure out why.”

Big jobs, like doing a complete rewiring or installing a new chartplotting suite with autopilot and fishfinder, are often quoted by the job. If you supply your own electronics, figure the aforementioned labor rate may be on the higher end to make up for the markup the installer loses from the equipment sale, slim as it may be.

Certifications

When having serious work done, consider hiring American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) certified technicians or folks with certifications from the electronics and engine manufacturers with gear on your boat. Though it’s not a guarantee of quality, it’s often a sign that the service outfit you’re dealing with values training and doing the job correctly.

Well, if that didn’t talk you out of buying a fixer upper, nothing will. Just joking. If you go into buying a previously loved boat armed with the right mindset and realistic expectations, it can be a great way to save yourself some money, gain a lot of practical experience, and get the boat of your dreams.